Friday, March 02, 2001

Theater review

Children's 'Beethoven' a little flat

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Beethoven by Heart, an original work by the Children's Theatre this weekend at the Taft Theater, is a noble idea that doesn't completely play.

        Children's Theater employs members of National Theatre of the Deaf to take a condensed look at the life of the composing genius and his hearing loss. One of the best things about the show is that it introduces young audiences to American Sign Language as hearing actors speak the dialogue.

        Happily, the large signing movements reach the audience at the back of the large auditorium in a way stage action of Children's Theater productions rarely do.

        As always with the company, the show looks very good. Jay Depenbrock creates a simple but attractive set that references both the period and the subject matter. It's matched by elegant costuming by Isaac Turner and director Jack Louiso.

        Children's Theatre veteran script writer Melanie Marnich does some things very well — she knows how to keep dialogue crisp and short using visual words. She's also created an agreeable slacker sidekick.

        But there's an assumption that kids have done their homework and already know a lot of things the script doesn't tell them. So while Beethoven shows us the composer didn't like to bathe, that Mozart prances and swishes in a lavender wig and that Beethoven wasn't above an occasional knock-down, drag-out burlesque of a wrestling match with a princess, there's no time line to the action.

        The music is presented in a laundry list of “and then he wrote” but doesn't illuminate what inspired him. The script tells us “you're changing everything everyone has ever known about music,” but it doesn't tell us how.

        Matthew Nill does a nice job as young Ludwig in two early scenes, then an engaging Matthew Daigle takes over. Dennis Webster is fun as the sidekick.

        Interestingly, the NTD performers are more natural than the staging of the work. Mr. Louiso directs as if Beethoven is a pageant rather than a play. Schtick aside, too much of it doesn't feel alive, but feels as if a hearing-impaired audience is being told something very important slowly and loudly.

       Beethoven by Heart, 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, the Children's Theatre, Taft Theater. 562-4949.


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